“Why are their eyes so big?” asks Ruben. Walter Keane responds, “The eyes are the windows to the soul!”
After several collaborations in a row with Johnny Depp and a second stop-motion animated film (the Oscar-nominated Frankenweenie), Tim Burton decided to focus on a smaller (both in scale and budget) yet still personal film. He set his sights on telling the story of painter Margaret Keane; a story that might seem like a departure for Burton on first glance but when you look closer it actually fits in with the rest of his work. Since Burton himself is an actual artist, it seems only fitting that the story of one artist would be told by another. When the trailer for Big Eyes debuted last fall, I watched it several times and was eager to see the film (its Christmas release could not arrive soon enough). I recently saw Big Eyes on the big screen, and I’m glad to state that it did not disappoint me at all (as a long-time Tim Burton fan, I enjoyed it very much).
2014’s Big Eyes follows a young divorcee and artist named Margaret who takes a job at a furniture company to support her young daughter and soon falls for a fellow artist named Walter Keane. After they marry, Walter starts to take credit for Margaret’s “big eyes” paintings, and Margaret goes along with the scheme fearing that the paintings won’t sell without his salesmanship. After years of success and anguish, Margaret finds the courage to leave Walter and fight for the credit that she deserves. Burton gathered an impressive cast for his latest film: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Jon Polito, Terence Stamp, and James Saito, along with Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur (who play the younger and older versions of Margaret’s daughter). Adams shines as Margaret, a woman trapped by the patriarchal society that dominated American life in the 1950s and 1960s but eventually managed to break free. Waltz is delightfully slimy as Walter, a somewhat clever con man who did know how to sell the hell out of a painting (mass-producing art cheaply for the masses to purchase was also a brilliant idea). My favorite scene would have to be the courtroom trial sequence (a highly enjoyable acting showcase for both Adams and Waltz).
The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (they also wrote Ed Wood for Burton) covers a period of roughly 12 years of Margaret Keane’s life (from the time she left her first husband through the trial with Walter in Hawaii). Tim Burton’s protagonists tend to be outsiders of society, and Margaret Keane actually fits the bill the more you think about it. She divorced her first husband at a time when it wasn’t a popular thing to do (even if it was justified). In her marriage to Walter, Margaret was pressured to go along with his scheme largely because (at that time in America) it was the woman’s role to support her husband no matter what (this notion is even reinforced by a Catholic priest while in a confessional at one point in the film!). Religion does play a small yet odd role in the film; it’s Christianity that somewhat helps keep Margaret trapped in her marriage to Walter, but, after finally leaving Walter and later becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, she finds the courage to claim the rightful credit for her artwork (I was probably more surprised that Hawaii had any Jehovah’s Witnesses to begin with). The script promotes female empowerment, and it is intriguing that Margaret’s empowerment also coincides with the growing feminist movement in America in the 1960s.
Although small in scale, there are a number of artistic flourishes throughout the film. Rick Heinrichs’ production design, Colleen Atwood’s costume designs, Connie Parker and Victoria Down’s makeup designs, and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography capture and reflect the era of the film’s settings perfectly. CGI blends seamlessly with the footage shot by Delbonnel to recreate the period settings, and JC Bond’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace. Burton’s direction is subdued yet strong as ever, and Danny Elfman delivers a lovely, low-key score that supports the film (I also liked Lana Del Rey’s title song). Big Eyes is a wonderful treat for those looking for something a little different from Burton (compared to his last few live action directorial efforts) and long-time fans should have no problem embracing it. Don’t hesitate any longer and go see Big Eyes!